WASHINGTON—House leaders were scrambling to bring back enough legislators to form a quorum to pass a $2 trillion economic rescue package after a Republican lawmaker suggested he might object to holding the vote using a procedure that avoids putting members on the record.
Rep. Thomas Massie (R., Ky.) told a local radio station that he would vote against the bill, and suggested that he might object to allowing the bill to pass by voice vote. If Mr. Massie forced a roll-call vote, the House would need a majority of the chamber—216 votes—in order to proceed with a vote. Otherwise, voting would be delayed until enough lawmakers could return to Washington.
A spokeswoman for Mr. Massie didn’t respond to a request for comment about his plans.
“We have notified our Members of the possibility that the bill may not pass by voice vote,” the press office for House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D., Md.) said in a statement. “The Majority Leader’s Office has sent a notice to Members that if they are able and willing to be in Washington, DC by 10:00 a.m. tomorrow, they are encouraged to do so, while exercising all due caution.”
House Minority Whip Steve Scalise (R., La.) echoed that sentiment.
Many lawmakers had planned to stay away from the Capitol because of the risks of traveling during the coronavirus pandemic.
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Congress’s attending physician has cautioned members to use extreme care and deliberation when deciding whether to travel.
The bill, which passed the Senate late Wednesday, is the largest economic-relief package in history and will extend aid to many struggling Americans through direct payments and expanded unemployment insurance, which also cover freelance and gig workers. It will give loans and grants to businesses, refill drained state coffers and send additional resources to sapped health-care providers.
The risk of contagion has prompted Congress to examine its own voting and social practices, which often put members in physical proximity.
The House will first attempt to pass the legislation by a voice vote, which doesn’t require all members to be present. But if the House doesn’t have 216 members, one lawmaker could object to a quorum not being present. A lawmaker could also request to have a roll-call vote, where names are recorded.
President Trump credited the stimulus package for a surge in U.S. stocks this week, saying economic uncertainty remained in the U.S., “but we’ve come a long way.”
“We’re doing a really good job in terms of running this whole situation having to do with the virus,” Mr. Trump told reporters at the White House. He and his administration were “doing a good job keeping very important people informed.”
“There was a great fear,” Mr. Trump said. “And a lot of good things are happening.”
In a caucus call Thursday afternoon, Democratic leaders leaned on lawmakers who could safely travel to do so to ensure there are enough votes to pass the bill, as long as it wouldn’t jeopardize the health of members or their families.
“Millions of Americans are waiting” for the help the bill could bring, Mr. Hoyer said on the call, according to a Democratic aide. The call prompted some lawmakers to start driving to Washington.
The House is expected to convene at 9 a.m. on Friday and debate the bill for two hours. Should a lawmaker use a procedural maneuver that requires a roll-call vote, House Democrats could move the vote to Saturday to allow more members to travel to have a quorum, the aide said.
A voice vote would put all lawmakers who want to be present on the floor at once, violating Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines to limit group gatherings to 10 people.
Separately, Mr. Hoyer’s office sent a message to lawmakers Thursday encouraging those who won’t be in Washington to record video statements so they can express their views remotely. The statements will be shared on social media and on C-Span.
Because of the pandemic, the House will take new precautions for the vote. House Sergeant at Arms Paul D. Irving and Brian Monahan, Congress’s attending physician, on Thursday directed lawmakers who aren’t involved in the floor debate to stay in their offices until the vote is called. They will be required to use hand sanitizer when entering and departing the chamber. Lawmakers were also cautioned against using elevators and told that no guests would be allowed.
The Senate passed the legislation unanimously, 96-0, late Wednesday night. Four Republican senators were out due to illness or exposure to coronavirus, showing how lawmakers are being affected by the pandemic even as they pass legislation to combat it.
Two House members have also tested positive for the virus, and at least two others are awaiting results of Covid-19 tests after falling ill. Many lawmakers are in self-quarantine, either after experiencing symptoms themselves or because of known exposure to someone who was sick.
One of those members, Rep. Ben McAdams, has been reliant on oxygen support for his recovery. In a text-message interview from the hospital, the Utah Democrat urged his colleagues from both parties to support the legislation, while also counseling lawmakers to use caution.
“It’s insensitive to use any ploy that will delay passage of the bill for people who need it,” he said. “Members of Congress should not take risks of catching this and spreading it; that will undercut our ability to continue responding to this very real crisis.”
Mr. Irving’s and Dr. Monahan’s memo said they would monitor social-distancing practices during the gathering. Should a roll-call vote be called for, the lawmakers will vote in groups of 30, by alphabetical order, they wrote.
Several lawmakers have already arrived in Washington. Democratic Rep. Haley Stevens of Michigan drove to Washington this week with her boyfriend and two dogs, Terra and Hydra, so she could represent the freshman class in the floor debate about the bill. Several other Democratic aides said lawmakers were still debating traveling to Washington.
A number of Republicans who opposed the last spending bill are planning to return.
Rep. Jody Hice (R., Ga.) said he plans to “go to the airport and check in and fly up there.”
“I would like to see all those who can and are healthy to come back,” said Rep. Louie Gohmert (R., Texas), who is already in Washington and reviewing the bill with staff.
House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy encouraged House lawmakers to permit a voice vote. “Hopefully, through this, we’ll learn to wash our hands more,” the California Republican said about how he thinks the virus might change long-term behaviors in the Capitol.
Once the bill is passed and signed by the president, lawmakers are expected to depart Washington for a lengthy period. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R., Ky.) set the next vote in the Senate for April 20. The date of the House’s return will be determined after the stimulus vote.
Still, lawmakers are already discussing what could be needed in a subsequent economic-relief package—which would be the fourth to address the health crisis. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D., Calif.) said she wanted to see worker-safety protections added, and for those who become sick from the virus to get free health care.
“There are a number of issues that we are not holding up this bill to do, but that we need to do,” Mrs. Pelosi said. “And we’re probably going to need more money.”
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